The pattern of Influenza Outbreak of 1957 is sickeningly similar to COVID-19. A new and deadly strain of flu emerges in Asia, then spreads across the world and comes to the United States. A pandemic is declared. In 1957 the new virus was first reported in Singapore, in February of that year, and then worked its way to Hong Kong. In June the disease had made its way to America.
Patients were often able to pinpoint the start of Asian flu (that’s what it was named) to the very minute with wobbly legs and a chill followed by prostration, sore throats, running nose, and coughs; together with achy limbs (adults), head (children), and a high fever following. Young children, particularly boys, suffered nose bleeds. Symptoms were mostly mild and patients usually recovered after a period in bed with simple anti-fevers measures. There were complications in 3% of cases with 0.3% mortality. Pneumonia and bronchitis accounted for 50% of these.
Life magazine in a 1957 issue declared that “the government has launched the fastest medical mobilization ever attempted against an epidemic disease,” and the race for the cure began that April 1957, when forward-looking researchers from Walter Reed first began to work on developing a vaccine. The first of the photos shown here, documented the fascinating process by which the vaccine was created, with the isolated virus being injected into an egg. After the virus multiplied inside the shell, the embryonic fluid was drawn out, the virus was killed, and the treated fluid was used as the vaccine.
The first batches of the vaccine were released while the weather was still warm, in late August and early September. The vaccine was produced quickly, but not enough to cover the entire population, and nor was it 100 percent effective. Unlike with COVID-19, there was no mass quarantine or sheltering in place. As kids headed back to school, the number of flu patients began to multiply. In the November of that year, Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney predicted that “the epidemic will get worse in the next six weeks, and then decrease.”
Burney was correct, to a point. While this flu seemed to abate after Thanksgiving, it proved resurgent, and cases spiked again in early 1958. By the end, according to CDC statistics, the pandemic was tied to 110,000 deaths in the United States, and 1.1 million around the world.
(Photo credit: Francis Miller / The LIFE Picture Collection).